1002.0 - Australian Statistics Advisory Council - Annual Report, 2017-18  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 19/10/2018   
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Year in Review: 2017-18

The Council held three meetings during 2017–18, in August and November 2017 and February 2018. (See Agenda for ASAC Meetings).

ABS Forward Work Program and Budget

The Council discussed the 2017–18 work program for the ABS and its performance against three strategic priorities:

  • Maintaining the quality of official statistics – including through prioritisation of products under increasing budgetary constraints.
  • Transforming the ABS to meet future needs and opportunities – including through the Statistical Business Transformation Program.
  • Maximising the value of public data through data integration and improving microdata access – including implementation of the Data Integration Partnership for Australia.

ASAC provided advice to the ABS in relation to each of these three strategic priorities, as well as on appropriate strategies to manage increased risk without stifling innovation and collaboration. The Council concurred that National Accounts, the Consumer Price Index, Labour Force Statistics and Estimated Resident Population remain high priorities, for which there should be a low tolerance for risk.

Members noted challenges facing the ABS as it seeks to continue building the community’s statistical literacy. They saw an increasing need to engage with social media in addition to traditional news sources.

As noted in last year’s Annual Report, the Council has become increasingly concerned at the trend decline in ABS core funding and its implications for the range and quality of statistics it can provide, as well as for the ABS’s coordination activities nationally. Information provided as background for its February 2018 meeting demonstrated that the resourcing and budgetary pressures were now placing the sustainability of key collections under threat. Members discussed the information provided on the funding profile, including projected reductions in appropriations, and noted the ABS’s vulnerability to any diminution in user funding, particularly for key social statistics.

It was agreed by the Council that the Chairperson should write to the Minister explaining why supplementation of the ABS’s resources has become an imperative and proposing some measures, including replacing user funding of nationally important social statistics with funding through the annual appropriation and either removing or staggering the ten per cent further budget reduction scheduled to coincide with completion of the ‘transformation’ investments. This letter was sent on 20 February 2018. (See Chairperson’s Letter regarding ABS resourcing).

In the absence of additional funding, ASAC lent its support to the ABS’s proposed prioritisation of statistical products, including the termination of some series and truncation of others.

2016 Census of Population and Housing

The Council noted with approval the successful release of the first round of data from the 2016 Census. This reflected in part the attention given to media access and briefings which served to improve the range and accuracy of reporting, with a particular focus on the quality of the data and valuable insights they provided into Australia’s demographic trends.

The Council had strongly supported the Statistician’s decision to convene an Independent Assurance Panel to assess the quality of the 2016 Census data. The Panel report, which was released publicly, confirmed that Census data were of comparable quality to previous censuses and remained ‘fit-for-purpose’. ASAC agreed that the use of an assurance panel should become standard practice in future Censuses.

Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey

The ABS was issued a direction from the Australian Treasurer on 9 August 2017 to collect statistical information from electors on the question as to whether the law should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry, a unique undertaking in the ABS’s history. The ABS was asked to publish the results of the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey (AMLPS) on 15 November 2017.

Given the national significance of this survey and the challenges it presented for the ABS, particularly in light of the tight timeframe and the backdrop of the 2016 Census, a special meeting of the Council was convened that included the Deputy Australian Statistician responsible for the AMLPS. The meeting canvassed a number of issues and strategies needed to minimise risks and enhance conduct of the Survey. Members provided guidance in such areas as risk management, survey methodology and governance. The Council also discussed with the ABS how best to manage engagement with Government and community stakeholder groups.

In addition, an effective media strategy was seen as key to maximising awareness of the survey and the approach being conducted, and thus to maximising participation.

In the event, the Council was pleased at the high response rate of nearly 80 per cent, unprecedented for a voluntary survey of this kind. Council members noted the timeliness of the survey, and the integrity with which it was conducted. The successful management of the survey was an important factor in the generally positive community perceptions. The Council also commended the ABS for continuing to deliver critical core work, despite diversion of staff.

2021 Census of Population and Housing

The Council has encouraged the ABS in its efforts to ensure that lessons from the 2016 Census and the AMLPS inform the approach to the 2021 Census, the planning for which is already under way. ASAC considers that a more robust framework has been established as a result, which should yield significant benefits.

ASAC members have raised various matters for ABS consideration, including: improving response rates from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians; the importance of improving small area data; implementing assurance processes across the Census life cycle in addition to the Independent Assurance, and developing an effective communication strategy.

With several countries making significant use of administrative data to support Census operational processes and adjust for non-response, the ABS sought guidance from ASAC on its strategy to take some similar steps in the 2021 Census. While there is no legislative inhibition to the use of administrative data, the Council recommended undertaking wide-ranging public engagement in order to minimise scope for misinformation, should the ABS proceed in this direction.

Council members will continue to offer advice throughout the year in such areas as risk management, governance, partnerships, public engagement and communications.

Remaking the Statistics Determination

The Statistics Determination 1983 (the Determination) enables the release or disclosure of certain statistical information, and therefore is of critical interest to ABS stakeholders and users. It is scheduled to ‘sunset’ on 1 October 2018. The Australian Treasury and ABS, with support from ASAC, have actively engaged with the community to facilitate the remaking of the Determination in an effective manner.

This has provided the ABS with an opportunity to consider whether the Determination remains fit for purpose, given the growing need for data to support research, innovation, policy and decision-making generally. The Council provided advice to the ABS on changes that could be made to the Determination, as well as on means of managing any public concerns about the release of personal information as a result of proposed changes.

Council members helped connect the ABS with the academic and business communities, through the Business Council of Australia, Australia Institute of Company Directors, and University of Sydney. ASAC stressed the need to build trust about how the Determination will affect the availability of data and that issues around consent in relation to de-identified data will be addressed.

The Data Integration Partnership for Australia

With the rapid growth of data integration globally, ASAC has long supported the ABS in its endeavour to better utilise existing public data, as part of its broader data integration program. The Council welcomed the Australian Government’s announcement during the year that it would invest a total of $130.8 million over three years to deliver the Data Integration Partnership for Australia (DIPA), of which the ABS will receive nearly $38 million.

The Council retains a keen interest in the governance of the DIPA, while also advising the ABS on prioritisation of its broader data integration program. Members explored advancements in, and challenges facing, data integration, social licence and data sharing. The Council was supportive of the whole-of-government ‘social licence’ strategy to build trust in the digital agenda. It notes that the use and public benefits of this integrated data will need to be carefully communicated to ensure public confidence. Members advised the ABS on seeking opportunities to harness additional datasets and reduce respondent burden, as well as highlighting the value of small area data.

The Council welcomes the ABS’s collaborative approach to the development of comprehensive longitudinal data assets – notably the Multi-Agency Data Integration Project (MADIP) (people centred) and Business Longitudinal Analysis Data Environment (BLADE) (business centred). ASAC supported the ABS’s commissioning of an independent Privacy Impact Assessment on behalf of MADIP agencies in 2018, which demonstrated commitment to embedding privacy protections into the design of MADIP, a key step in building trust in MADIP and other Commonwealth data integration work.

ABS Transformation Agenda

Over the past year, ASAC has seen significant progress across all six dimensions of the ABS’s Transformation program, which is resulting in gains in the efficiency and effectiveness of ABS operations and stakeholder relations. The Council has continued to provide specific advice on matters relating to governance, as well as infrastructure and cultural change dimensions of the program.

The Council has continued to monitor the progress of the Statistical Business Transformation Program (SBTP) noting that the November 2017 Gateway Review found an acceptable level of delivery. It understands that some benefits of the SBTP are already being realised; for example, through improved access to micro-data through the ABS’s DataLab. Members acknowledged the importance of data integration at the unit record level, but stressed that a strategy may also be needed to develop user capabilities.